Sunday, 7 December 2008

Interview: Peter Brandvold

My latest interview is with author Peter Brandvold. His books first appeared on the shelves towards the end of the 1990’s and since then he’s become essential reading for many western fans. I discovered him a few years back when he began his third series and after reading the first of these (Cuno Massey books) I immediately bought all his previous work and have since eagerly waited for each new publication.

Peter Brandvold hauls his younger sister off to the hoosegow for stealing his hat--circa age 6. In Rolette, Dakota Territory, circa 1968.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Probably after I first learned to read. The magic of words on the page creating images and entire narratives in the head struck me right away as incredible magic. "See Spot leap the fence!" Then, when I read a couple of stories in my fifth-grade English reader--one by Jack London, "To Build A Fire," and another by Roald Dahl, "Beware of the Dog," the idea of writing was cemented for me and has been ever since.

What was the first novel you had published and if this wasn't a western what was your first western?

ONCE A MARSHAL. The first book in my Ben Stillman series, about an aging lawman trying to start life over again after having been shot in the back by a drunk whore.

How many books did you write before the first was accepted for publication?

My first book was accepted for publication. I worked eight months on it and Berkley bought it. I was 32. But I'd been practicing for a long, long time, and I'd been teaching on an Indian reservation in Montana and I really just want to write.

Which writers influence you?

Holy-moly! Everyone I read. Even if it's bad, it influences you, because you're wanting to make sure you don't make the same mistakes. That's really true. Reading bad writing is almost as helpful as reading good writing. But to toss out a couple of names, I'd say (without sounding too high-handed) Tolstoy (especially "The Cossacks") and O.E. Rolvaag ("Giants in the Earth"). Also pulp crime writers like Jim Thompson and Dan Marlowe as well as western writers like Gordon D. Sherriffs and H.A. DeRosso. DeRosso is my favorite writer of westerns and it really rubs my fur in the wrong direction that he only wrote about five novels. He's very crude at times, like a primitive painter. But he's also incredibly visceral and emotionally sharp. When you read DeRosso, the words tickle your insides a little. That's what I look for in a good book or story, and that's what I try to do in my own writing.

Do you work on more than one book at a time?

Yes, I often work on two or three projects at a time, usually try to knock off a thousand words a day on each. Currently I'm writing one novel and a screenplay for my novel THE ROMANTICS, as a production company has shown some interest in possibly bringing it to the big screen. In a day or two I intend to start my next contracted ROGUE LAWMAN novel tentatively title UNDERTAKER'S FRIEND. I like working on more than one book at a time. Fills my head and my day up better, keeps my mind off such things as mortality and how long till happy hour?

Do you wish you had more say in the covers that appear in your books?

Yes, but I've given up on that. They have only so much money for western covers, and there's only so much talent out there. I wish James Bama would do ALL of my covers--he did the wonderful DOC SAVAGE and Louis L'Amour covers back about two or three decades ago--but there just aren't many Bamas out there. I don't think he even does book covers anymore. "But I am very pleased with how the covers to most of my .45-CALIBER series books are turning out, especially the next in line--.45-CALIBER WIDOW MAKER. That's the best one in the series so far, and here the cover really reflects the plot of the book. Anyone can check it out on Amazon though I don't think the book will be out until April or so."

How important is historical accuracy in westerns?

Very important. You have to get it all right. Of course, we're all human and we all make mistakes, but it's important to get those details right--whether it be about guns or wagons or whale-bone corsets. Accurate period details helps create that imaginary world we're all trying to create and sustain, and no one should be reading a western and say, "Hey, that rifle didn't come into action until the 1900's!" Because that throws you out of the story. I have a ton of reference books around, always trying to get it right. When I goof up, I really grind my teeth over it.

What appeals to you about the western genre?

The land, the men, the women, the lack of civilized law and boundaries. It's really a mythic place, sort of like Robert E. Howard's Hyboria.

What makes the perfect western?

I'm still trying to figure that out. I haven't read one and I haven't written one yet. I think DeRosso comes closest, though, in .44. It's not about how many bad guys go down bloody. It's more about emotional depth and character growth and how close the book comes to saying something real about being alive and suffering...within the confines of the genre, of course--and while the bad guys go down bloody!

Which western writers would you recommend?

DeRosso, like I said before. Donald Hamilton, who also wrote the Matt Helm books. Gordon D. Sherriffs. Dean Owen, whose real name I believe was Dudley Dean. I like a lot of his. Also a book hardly anyone these days has heard about called MI AMIGO by W. R. Burnette. That's another one I like a lot.

Is there a western series you'd like to resurrect?

I can't think of any off hand. Possibly George Gilman's EDGE series, which I liked as a kid and still read from time to time. But the political incorrectness might grate on today's more wussy reading populace who've been indoctrinated by Oprah Picks. Can't imagine Terry's books in the same Walmart as Mitch Albom, but it's fun to think about! Ha!

Which past western would you like to see back in print and why is this?

Donald Hamilton's books. Because they're damn good novels in addition to being westerns.

What's your opinion on keeping dead authors alive by having someone write new books under their name, like is happening with Ralph Compton and William Johnstone?

Well, I've written a couple of Compton novels, and I enjoyed writing them--BULLET CREEK and NAVARRO. Those are two damn good books, if you'lll allow me to say so, and Compton had nothing whatever to do with them. Those are both all me. And I have a feeling that's what's happening with the "Johnstone" writers, too. But, I don't know, I guess if people are still buying them, what's wrong with a little duplicity? It's a tradition in the publishing racket. Look at V.C. Andrews. There's probably eighty books out there with her name on the cover though she wrote maybe three of them!

I really enjoyed the Navarro novels, have always thought it a shame there aren't more. Any chance of a new Navarro book?

I don't think so. The only way I'd continue the character is under my own name or my own pen name, Frank Leslie, and since when I signed the contract for the Compton books I had to turn all rights of the character over to the Compton estate, that isn't going to happen. But maybe Taos Tommy's twin brother Santa Fe Jim will show up under my name or the Frank Leslie name somewhere down the road. You never know...

Most of your series westerns are published by Berkley, do they contract you for a specific number of books per series or are you free to write for whichever series you choose?

It depends. If the numbers are significantly higher on one or two series more than on others, they strongly "suggest," I do the ones with the higher numbers. So I take their suggestions because I have propane to buy, beer to drink, and dogs to feed.

Any chance of seeing two or more of your series characters appear in the same book?

Definitely. I've been thinking about doing that. That's tricky, though, because you don't want one hero to seem more heroic than the other. You don't want a Batman and Robin type thing. I wrote fifty pages on one such novel with Lou Prophet and Cuno Massey, and scrapped it. I'm ready to try again, though. I think I know how to do it.

That is something I'll be looking forward too. I remember when the first Edge meets Steele book came out, that was like a dream come true and really went down well with Gilman fans. It'd be interesting to see Stillman sent after Gideon Hawk. I guess you can only pair up your heroes from books by the same publisher?

That's a good idea. I might just do that. The hunter and the hunted--two worthy adversaries. I think, if I own the rights to all the characters involved, I can use any character I want. In fact, Lou Prophet makes a cameo in my Colter Farrow novel coming out later in '09 from Signet--THE GUNS OF SAPINERO.

How did your collaboration on the Bat Lash comic books come about?

That's a long story, but I wanted to do my Rogue Lawman series as a graphic novel. DC came back and said they didn't publish creator-owned work, but would I like to do one of their characters--BAT LASH? I thought it would be fun, and it was. I worked with one of the original co-creators, Sergio Aragones, and the incredible, venerable John Severin.

Does writing for a comic book require a different approach to writing a novel?

The story can be the same but you're primarily writing panel descriptions for the artist, so you don't get into the narrative flow like you do in a novel. It's very different. Almost like writing a screenplay. To be honest, it's not nearly as fun as novel writing. And it ain't easy, either. Getting each panel just right, with the right angles and point of view and just the right number of panels per page, ain't for the faint of heart. I started out the project whistling and grinning as though having written thirty prose novels would make this seem like a fun Saturday night in Abilene. But I went to bed whimpering in dire frustration more than a time or two!

Which of your westerns would you recommend to someone who hasn't read any of your work yet and why?

BLOOD MOUNTAIN. Because it's my second book and my horns were very sharp and it's just a damn crazy story. (Only please ignore the scene where I have a one-armed man push himself up off a wagon bed with "both hands!") It's also a stand-alone, so they don't have to worry about getting into the middle of a series. But I reckon I should say my next book out--THE GRAVES AT SEVEN DEVILS, because they'd have to buy GRAVES new (and I'd get my three-cent royalty) whereas they could get BLOOD MOUNTAIN for a penny used on Amazon!

Have you written any westerns under a pseudonym and if so can you tell us which?

The Compton books, like I said. I also write westerns for Signet under my FRANK LESLIE pen name. Those are all me, just written under a pen name so I don't flood the market with my own name. But I highly recommend my Frank Leslie books. I've worked hard to get that line going--with Yakima Henry being the main character of most of the books so far, with another hero on the way named Colter Farrow--and it's some of my best, rawest, most violent stuff.

Colter Farrow? Sounds great, any idea when the first of these will appear?

Sometime in '09. Probably late '09. As mentioned earlier, the title is THE GUNS OF SAPINERO. Sapinero is a little town on the banks of the Cimarron River in southwestern Colorado. I camped near there this past summer, when I was writing the book. They filmed TRUE GRIT around there.

What do you think of the western genre today and what do you think the future holds for the western?

Aside from a few good writers, including Johnny D. Boggs--I recently thoroughly enjoyed his novel, "Northfield"--as well as Jimmy Butts and James Reasoner... I think generally it's poorly written. I pick new books up all the time, and most just don't hold me, either because the characters are stock or the writing style is stilted and old-fashioned, or both. Also, way too much cornball dialect and main characters are way too goody-goody. I like the main character to be more real, meaning he/she can't be ALL good, but has to have a little darkness in him or her, too. But it's a very rich genre, an American original, and I think it'll outlast me. Just as horror and sci fi will.

What is your favourite western movie and why?

I love RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. But I love all of Budd Boetticher's westerns, too--especially COMANCHE STATION and SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. Also, I'm a really big fan of the "other Sergio"--Sergio Corbucci. Love DJANGO. His THE GREAT SILENCE is wonderfully gritty, uncompromising, original, quirky, and just over-the-top, kick-the-privy-door-shut story-telling. The viewer is always surprised, just as I hope my readers always are. They're left wagging their heads and muttering, "Jesus, he can't really do that in a western, can he?" So, I guess you can see I don't really have a number one favorite.

Finally what do you read for pleasure?

Everything. Nonfiction books about the west and guns. Just finished one called THE BLOODY LEGACY OF PINK HIGGINS by Bill O'Neil. Excellent read. I also recently read the biography of Sam Peckinpah called IF THEY MOVE, KILL 'EM! Just now I'm reading THE VENGEANCE MAN by Dan Marlowe, some of the Conan comics and a vintage crime story by Frederic Brown with a wonderfully sexy cover--so sexy that I can't recall the title!


Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Steve,
Thanks for the fine interview with Peter Brandvold. He's at the top of my list of favorite writers of Westerns. His work represents what I aspire to in my own books--gritty moments, believable characters with depth, involved plots, and action, action, action!

Brandvold sounds like the sort of fellow it'd be great to have a beer with--a top quality in a Western writer.

Another winning interview! Keep on ... we like it!



Fantastic interview - likeing the western myth to Robert E. Howard. I'd never thought of it in those terms before but that opens a world of possibities. Very inte4resting

Chap O'Keefe said...

An insightful run around the western fiction scene . . . Donald Hamilton and Dudley Dean books feature on my "top ten" list, too. Peter Brandvold might like to know that there's a good backgrounder on Dudley Dean McGaughey at

Keep up the good work!


madshadows said...

Great interview Steve, fascinating stuff.

Steve M said...

Thanks for the encouraging words, I have another almost ready for posting...

Ray said...

Another brilliant interview. I liked the insight into the creation of Bat Lash: Guns 'n' Roses as it was something that I had wondered about

Duane Spurlock said...

Nice interview. It's fun to see that kind of enthusiasm come out from a writer during the course of a discussion. Most are so modest and reserved, you end up learning little about their real personality -- but here, I feel I know Brandvold a little better. Certainly I can see how his personality infuses his books! I was a big fan of the original run of Bat Lash, so I was pleased to see Brandvold's work with the character. Good work, Steve!

Steve M said...

Must admit I'd never heard of Bat Lash until Peter started wrote the new stories, guess it must have something to do with me being in England.